U.S. Lifts Embargo To Help Abbas

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The United States yesterday lifted its embargo on direct aid to the Palestinian government, joining the European Union and other countries in a swift demonstration of support for embattled President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle against the anti-Israeli militant group Hamas.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had called Salam Fayyad, the new prime minister named this week by Abbas, to tell him she was ending bans on aid and diplomatic contacts imposed after Hamas's unexpected victory in legislative elections last year. "We want to work with his government and support his efforts to enforce the rule of law and to ensure a better life for the Palestinian people," she told reporters.

In Luxembourg, European Union foreign ministers said they also were prepared to end the 15-month embargo on direct financial aid to the Palestinian government. "The signal is that we support 100 percent, politically and financially, Abbas and his transition government," said Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn.

Some analysts have questioned the legality under Palestinian law of Abbas's dismissal of the Hamas-dominated government after Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from security forces loyal to Abbas. But Rice and other U.S. officials brushed aside such concerns, insisting he had every right to create a new government -- one that now appears willing and able to negotiate with Israel.

"We are trying to push the restart button," one senior administration official said, bringing U.S. policy back to before the Hamas victory in elections that were certified as free and fair.

The rush to support Abbas spawned some nervousness among Israeli officials, who consider Abbas ineffectual and too willing to compromise with Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrived in Washington yesterday and will meet with President Bush this morning and over lunch in a session that had been intended to bolster the unpopular Israeli leader's political standing. Now the international response to Hamas's takeover of Gaza will dominate the discussions.

Abbas, in a phone conversation with Bush yesterday, urged him to encourage Israel to begin peace talks with his new government as soon as possible.

"We have seen the results of attempts to make compromises with terrorists," said Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor, referring to a unity government Abbas created this year with Hamas. He said Abbas needs to make a "strategic decision" to cut ties completely with Hamas, adding that "he has taken some steps in a positive direction."

The senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities involved, noted that Fayyad committed himself this weekend to key principles -- such as accepting Israel's right to exist -- that Western powers had demanded of the Hamas-led government. Fayyad, a respected economist, has long been close to U.S. officials. "Our belief is that they have a Palestinian partner" for peace, the U.S. official said, referring to the Israelis.

Rice said that up to $86 million in funds -- much of which had been earmarked to bolster Abbas's security forces against Hamas -- will be redirected in consultation with Congress to assist the nascent government in providing essential services.

Hamas won the 2006 elections largely on its reputation for efficiency in providing social services and for incorruptibility, in contrast to that of Abbas's Fatah party, which has long dominated Palestinian politics. The international aid boycott, intended to isolate Hamas, stirred resentment among many Palestinians, even those who did not support Hamas. Humanitarian aid, however, continued to flow, including under a European program that paid the salaries of health-care providers and other essential workers.

Rice said an additional $40 million will be contributed to the U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

"Through its actions, Hamas sought to divide the Palestinian nation," Rice said. "We reject that. It is the position of the United States that there is one Palestinian people and there should be one Palestinian state."

Rice gave no indication of how the evolving U.S. policy would restore Abbas's power over Gaza. It is also unclear whether she will return soon to the region to restart her efforts to foster detailed peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians -- an effort both sides had come to view with increasing skepticism. U.S. officials said a trip is unlikely until the new Palestinian government finds its footing.

Neither Hamas nor Fatah appeared ready to give ground yesterday. Fatah leaders said the former Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, should acknowledge Abbas's order dismissing the unity government that the Islamic party once led.

"Haniyeh has only one way out of this," said Qaddura Faris, a former Fatah government minister in the West Bank. "He has to obey the president's order and apologize on behalf of Hamas."

Hamas leaders in Gaza, meanwhile, refused to accept Abbas's decision to dissolve the government, which followed five days of fighting that left the strip entirely in the hands of Hamas. "I think we are the only legitimate government because we received our support from the Palestinian people," said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas leader and former foreign minister in its government. "The others received their legitimacy from the enemy."

About 400 Palestinians, many of them women and children, gathered on the Gaza side of the Erez crossing into Israel yesterday seeking a way out of the strip. Around twilight, gunfire erupted and at least one Palestinian was killed. Witnesses said Hamas gunmen, now in charge of the crossing, opened fire with assault rifles to control the crowd.

Under U.S. pressure, the Palestinian Basic Law was amended several years ago to limit the powers of the president to dismiss the government, largely because the late Yasser Arafat was the Palestinian leader at the time.

Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an analysis that both Hamas's actions in Gaza and Abbas's actions in response failed the constitutional tests. "The result is likely to be two lawless governments," he said. "Neither will be accountable to Palestinian society or institutions in any way."

Rice, asked about the legality of Abbas's actions, said: "Our view, very strongly, is that what President Abbas has done is legitimate and it is responsible and we're going to support that action." Other U.S. officials, speaking privately, said they had little concern that legal niceties were being ignored, given Hamas's power grab.

"How do I put this diplomatically? Who cares?" said Ghaith al-Omari, a former Abbas aide now at the New America Foundation. "It is the politics of survival now."

Correspondents Molly Moore in Paris and Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.


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